Wireless security researcher VirnetX
Where will the company go in 2012? Let's figure it out together.
It's easy to see the attraction here. VirnetX is an offshoot of defense contractor SAIC
The company burst onto the computing scene with a big patent infringement win against Microsoft
Of the settlement, 35% belongs to SAIC, according to the original license agreement. It was a very expensive campaign to wage, costing more than $40 million in legal fees. But everything worked out: the legal battle paid off, and VirnetX investors enjoyed a $23.6 million special dividend the next quarter. That's $0.50 per share for a meaty 8.4% payout.
If VirnetX can pull off that trick again, or else start licensing 4G security patents to every player in the mobile industry, investors will be very, very happy. And VirnetX is trying hard. There's one lawsuit involving six patents against networking giant Cisco Systems
Where's the payoff?
So many irons in the fire and so much promise, and yet 24% of the float is sold short. Shares are trading some 36% below 52-week highs. Why aren't we all backing up the truck to these seemingly outsized returns?
Because there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, my friend. In order to cash in those chips, VirnetX must prove that its technology is indeed both innovative and important. And that might not be the slam-dunk that the Microsoft case implied.
For one, those "essential technology" claims are VirnetX's own. The relevant standards bodies have not, to the best of my knowledge, acknowledged or approved of any of them. That's like your Uncle Dennis declaring that his air guitar skills are essential to saving the economy. Might be true, but you just don't know. The technologies could be perfectly valid solutions to 4G security challenges, but network and phone builders might be able to design around them with totally different technologies.
As for the Microsoft case, it seems obvious that Redmond could have settled for much less -- or perhaps won outright with the right strategy. For one, paying nearly double the original damage award doesn't speak highly of Mr. Softy's performance in this case. For another, one of the patents (the '759 patent) from that proceeding has since been invalidated by a challenge from Cisco. Microsoft paid for that now-worthless patent.
Cisco has since lost another challenge of VirnetX patents. Maybe VirnetX has a legal leg to stand on after all. But it's hardly the bulked-up hunk of meat it looked like in 2010.
So in 2012, I not-so-bravely predict that VirnetX will win some battles and lose a few others -- the fickle fates of justice swing both ways. But there will also be an explosion of competing solutions developed by hardware and software giants with plenty of skin in the mobile game.
In the end, VirnetX goes home with a much smaller paycheck than earlier victories have indicated, and investors are left holding an empty bag. The current $1.35 billion market cap is just not appropriate for a development-stage company with minuscule proven sales and a highly uncertain future.
If you want to invest in technology licensing firms, why not go with a proven performer instead? OLED veteran Universal Display
Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Cisco Systems, Apple, and Microsoft, and has also created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, InterDigital, and Universal Display. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating bull call spread positions in Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. We have a disclosure policy.